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What is even better than having a really fast web server, framework, programming language that creates your web page? Not having to create and load the page at all because it's already there in a cache.

After working through this guide you will:

  • know that many different caches influence your web app:
    • HTTP caching (you know that already from the asset pipeline)
    • Fragment caching
    • ActiveRecord QueryCache
  • be able to configure rails for caching
  • be able to measure if a change you made improved the performance of your rails app

You can study the demo for the example described here - if it's currently online.

1 Performance

Before you start "optimizing" the performance of your web application you should consider these wise words:

"We should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time: premature optimization is the root of all evil" -- Donald Knuth

This is a warning against making things worst by trying to "optimize" them. It's not an "optimization" if you make things worst. So keep these things in the right order:

  1. Is there a performance problem? If not: stop. do not change your system. It is good enough.
  2. Find out where the bottleneck is. Do this by measuring, using appropriate tools.
  3. If you found the right place, only then you can start to "optimize"

See Sudara(2016): Rails Performance and the root of all evil for a more in depth discussion.

Let's look at the first step: what is a "performance problem" in Web Development? We are concerned with delivering a whole webpage to the end user. From the end users perspective there really is only one value to measure: I clicked on something, how long did it take for the next page to load. We will call this the "response time".

At least since 2004, when Steve Souders book "High Performance Web Sites" came out web performance has been discussed a lot in the web developer community. Measuring tools were developed, workflows were changes, frameworks were adapted to take performance into account. Today we can use all this knowledge and obtain results easily. The necessary tools are all there, we just have to use them properly.

2 Measuring Performance

Let's start with a very general rule of thumb for performance:

We want the whole web page to load within a second. We expect to need about half of that (500ms) for loading extra assets like javascript files, css, images. We will set aside another 200ms for shipping data across the network, which leaves us with 300ms time to render out the first HTML document from our Rails App.

2.1 Web Developer Tools in your Browser

Modern Browsers all come with extensive developer tools, which let you analyze your webpage right in the browser.

An important tool is the network view:

network view firefox

You can focus in on the loading of the html document itself, and look at the timings:

network view firefox: timings

Here the time "waiting" for the first byte is high. This is a performance problem in the Rails App itself. Here caching might help.

2.2 Webpagetest

Web Page Test is an open source project that you can run on your own servers. Our you can use the online version to analyze your projects:

If the time to "first byte" is high, you have a problem when generating the first HTML document, right in the Rails app. Here caching might help.

2.3 Google PageSpeed Insights

Google also offers a performance analysis tool, with a separate analysis for mobile and desktop:

2.4 rack-mini-profiler

This gem helps you analyze where your Rails App spends time.

See RailsCast #368 for a good introduction.

The Mini Profiler only measures the server side: the time spent in the rails app to generate the webpage. So we need to compare the numbers Mini Profiler gives us to the 300ms threshold defined above.

3 Caching in the Asset Pipeline

See the chapter about the Asset Pipeline for HTTP caching.

4 Fragment Caching

We will use a portfolio site as an example app. All the screenshots above already show this example app. You can study the demo on heroku, there all the caching is already implemented.

4.1 Configure Caching

Caching is deactivated by default in the development environment. You have to activate it if you want to try this out in development:

# config/environments/development.rb

config.action_controller.perform_caching = true

You have to decide on a cache store. For production the simplest method when using just one web server is in-memory:

# config/environments/production.rb

   require 'active_support/core_ext/numeric/bytes'
   config.cache_store = :memory_store, { size: 64.megabytes }

To get a quick impression of what is saved to the cache it is helpful to use the file_store in development:

# config/environments/development.rb

  config.cache_store = :file_store, "#{Rails.root}/tmp/file_store"  

4.2 Caching a View

If you look at the miniprofiler above, a first glance rendering the project show view takes too long: 450ms. We could dig into the details, but let's try a simple approach first: cache the whole view.

add this around the whole project view:

<% cache @project do %>
<% end %>

The result is stunning: from 450ms down to 45ms:

4.2.1 How caching works

So what happens here? When the view is rendered for the first time for a project, it will be rendered normally (and still take around 450ms). In the log file you will see a message like this:

Write fragment views/projects/1679-20140722193808000000000/0db0955317bafa37cc34ffcb7567a874 (19.1ms)

This shows the key that is used for the fragment. This key depends on both the object we specified (here @project), and on the view fragment. In this example '1679' is the id of @project, and '20140722193808000000000' is the current value of its updated_at attribute. The last part of the key is a hash of the view fragment inside the cache block.

So if either the object or the view changes, a new key will be generated and thus the cache is expired.

When the view is rendered for the second time, you find the following message in the log file:

Read fragment views/projects/1679-20140722193808000000000/0db0955317bafa37cc34ffcb7567a874 (1.9ms)

Here the cache is read out.

4.2.2 Peeking into the cache

You can also read from the cache in the rails console:


The result is a string with 14716 bytes of html (too long to show here).

When using file_store you can also find the cache in the directory you specified. A two level directory structure will be generated for the cache files, for example:

$ ls  tmp/file_store/*/*/*

4.2.3 Changing the model

Now let's check if the cache is really invalidated when the underlying model changes. Load the project "Origin" in your web browser: http://localhost:3000/projects/2015-origin

In the rails console you can find the corresponding model, and change an attribute:

project = Project.find_by_title('Origin')
project.description = project.description + " and some new information"

Now reload the browser to make sure that a new version of the page is rendered. Reload again to check if the new version is cached.

4.3 Caching a Partial

If you look at the homepage of the demo you can see that the list of project under "Bachelorprojekte" is different every time you reload the page. There are 9 projects in all, but only 5 will be picked randomly and will be displayed.

If we want to keep this feature caching the whole homepage will not work: once the homepage is cached, a reload of the page will show the exact same page. The same five projects will appear on the homepage indefinetly.

We could change our expectations for the random display: We could decide that the same 5 projects should be shown for a whole day, and only on the next day new projects should be picked.

This would work for our example app. a second approeach would be to not cache the whole homepage, but only the display of an individual project. This means going down to the projects/_project partial, and caching that.

This second approach is useful not just for our "random projects". Think of the "activity stream" on the facebook hompage: it will look differently for each user, and each time the page is loaded. But it consists of smaller fragments which can be cached: the individual status message, or event, or photo can be reused.

4.3.1 Implementation

When you add the code for caching to the projects/_project view make sure that you specify the correct object. If not, you might up loading the same partial again and again:

problem with fragement caching

If you implement it correctly each rendering of the partial should be faster now:

successful fragement caching

In Rails 5 you can speed up the rendering even more. If you look at the fronts/show view you can see that the project partial is rendered through a collection:

<%= render :partial => "projects/project", :collection => @samples[i] %>

In Rails 5 you can add caching here:

<%= render :partial => "projects/project", :collection => @samples[i], :cached => true %>

Now instead of fetching each partial from the cache one by one rails will do a multi-fetch, which is faster. But our example app is written in Rails 4, so this does not work yet.

See Deshmane(2016)

4.3.2 Side Effects

An unexpected side effect of caching the partial can be seen in the edition view: this view also uses the projects/_project partial, so it too will profit from the caching.

4.4 Russian Doll Caching

In the previous step we implemented caching for the projects/_project partial, which is also used in the editions/show view. Now let's add caching to this view also:

<% cache @edition do %>
<% end %>

This change will again speed up the display of the page:

russian doll caching

But now we have problem: if we change one of the projects inside this edition, the cache for the partial would be recreated. But this never gets triggered, because the cache for the whole edition is still valid:

project = Project.find_by_title('Origin')
project.title = 'Orange'

If you reload the page now, you can still see the project named "Origin", not "Orange".

The problem here is a missing dependency: our cache entry only depends on the edition, not on the projects contained in the edition.

We can declare the full dependency by supplying an array of objects to the cache helper method:

<% cache [@edition,@edition.projects] do %>
<% end %>

If you reload the page now, you can see that a much longer cache key is generated:

Write fragment views/editions/16-20160202125058000000000/projects/1622-20141216101932000000000 /projects/1658-20150601055523000000000/projects/1773-20170420014824000000000/projects/1835-20150604061050000000000/projects/1864-20150611174811000000000/projects/1872-20150603140238000000000/projects/1873-20150603084648000000000/projects/1879-20150606174629000000000/projects/2044-20161010124545000000000/e212725e51fc97160af625b6651e38b8

This key works for all changes in an edition:

  • changing an attribute of the edition will change the updated_at attribute also, and will change the key
  • changing an attribute of one of the projects will change the corresponding updated_at attribute also, and will change the key
  • adding a new project to the edition will make the key longer
  • removing a project from the edition will make the key shorter

In this example the title of one of the projects was changed: You can see in rack-mini-profiler that only one of the partials was recreated, all the other partials were loaded from cache. The next time the same page was rendered the edition cache was reused.

russian doll caching at work: changes when a project changes

4.5 The limits of fragment caching

Caching is really helpful for pages that are accessed a lot. In our example app this might be true for the homepage and maybe the editions. But there are hundreds of projects in the portfolio. Each individual project page will only get very few hits. Which means that chances are high that the page will not already be in the cache when it is requested.

So caching cannot be the solution to all performance problems. We need to take a closer look at the first render of a page to find where we are wasting time. To do this it makes sense to switch off caching in development:

# config/environments/development.rb

config.action_controller.perform_caching = false

5 ActiveRecord and DB

Accessing the database takes a long time - compared to all the computation that is done in ruby code itself. So looking at the Database, and the ORM we use to access the database, might make sense for performance optimisation.

5.1 Ignore this

If you find SHOW FULL FIELDS queries in your log file or in rack-mini-profiler, you can ignore them. These queries are used by activerecord to find out which attributes an object has. In production these will only occur when the first object of a type is loaded, so you can savely ignore them.

5.2 QueryCache

If you look into the log file logs/development.log you will see all the SQL queries made to the database, and also some that are not really sent to the database.

Here are some lines from a log file:

Started GET "/projects/2014-yokaisho" for ::1 at 2017-04-20 04:40:10 +0200
Processing by ProjectsController#show as HTML
  Parameters: {"id"=>"2014-yokaisho"}
  User Load (6.9ms)  SELECT  `users`.* FROM `users` WHERE `users`.`id` = 953 LIMIT 1
  CACHE (0.1ms)  SELECT  `users`.* FROM `users` WHERE `users`.`id` = 953 LIMIT 1  [["id", 953]]
  CACHE (0.0ms)  SELECT  `users`.* FROM `users` WHERE `users`.`id` = 953 LIMIT 1  [["id", 953]]
  CACHE (0.1ms)  SELECT  `users`.* FROM `users` WHERE `users`.`id` = 953 LIMIT 1  [["id", 953]]

What we can see here is that the Data for user 953 was loaded four times. Somewhere in our rails app we call User.find(953) or similar ActiveRecord methods four times.

But only the first time a SQL requests is really sent to the database. Loading the data from the database took 6.9 ms here.

The next three times the same user was loaded, it was loaded from the ActiveRecord QueryCache, which only took 0.1ms or less.

The default behaviour is that rails loads each model only once for each HTTP request. For the next HTTP request the QueryCache is cleard.

If you ever run into problems with the QueryCache, you can always reload a model explicitly:

user = User.find(953)
# will do SQL request
user = User.find(953)
# will use the query cache
# bust the query cache, do a real SQL query

5.3 n+1 queries

When analysing the SQL queries a rails project generates you will often find this situation: you have a 1:n relationship, for example: a project has many users. When displaying the project with all of its users you see n+1 queries. In our example app this happens:

SELECT * FROM `projects` WHERE `slug` = '2014-yokaisho' ORDER BY `projects`.`id` ASC LIMIT 1
SELECT * FROM `projects_roles_users` WHERE `project_id` IN (1622)
SELECT * FROM `users` WHERE `id` = 1033 LIMIT 1
SELECT * FROM `users` WHERE `id` = 1018 LIMIT 1
SELECT * FROM `users` WHERE `id` = 901 LIMIT 1
SELECT * FROM `users` WHERE `id` = 938 LIMIT 1
SELECT * FROM `users` WHERE `id` = 945 LIMIT 1
SELECT * FROM `users` WHERE `id` = 977 LIMIT 1
SELECT * FROM `users` WHERE `id` = 953 LIMIT 1
SELECT * FROM `users` WHERE `id` = 652 LIMIT 1
SELECT * FROM `users` WHERE `id` = 940 LIMIT 1

Here 9 users belong to the project. They are loaded using 9 requests. This is inefficient! If we were coding SQL by hand, we could get the same data using one query with a join.

We can use rack-mini-profiler to find the code line that generated the request:

finding the source code for a sql request

In this example, the ActiveRecord method that generate the first request is in project_controller.rb, line 26

@project = Project.friendly.find(params[:id])

Later, in the view and partials, the relationships from @project to users is accessed.

To get ActiveRecord to automatically load all the users at once we can change this one line to use the 'includes' method:

@project = Project.includes(:users).friendly.find(params[:id])

After this change we find a lot less SQL requests:

SELECT * FROM `projects` WHERE `slug` = '2014-yokaisho' ORDER BY `projects`.`id` ASC LIMIT 1
SELECT * FROM `projects_roles_users` WHERE `project_id` IN (1622)
SELECT * FROM `users` WHERE `id` IN (1033, 1018, 901, 938, 945, 977, 953, 652, 940)

This makes a measurable difference:

compare render times with and withoud include

In this example there are many more models that belong to a project. If we include them all, we end up with a sizable reduction in SQL queries:

@project = Project.includes(:users, :roles, :assets, :urls, :tags).friendly.find(params[:id])

compare render times with many includes

5.4 view

We still have many more SQL queries that are created for the collaborators/_show partial.

The collaborator partial shows information about one team member: the thumbnail, the name, their degree program(s) and the role(s) they had in the project.

collaborator partial

The information about the degree programs is found in 2 different tables:

  • studycourses
  • agegroups_studycourses_departments_users

To display "MMT Bachelor 2010, MMT Master 2014" for Mr. Huber the helper method print_studycourses is used. We can try out this helper method in the rails console:

> user = User.find(901)
  User Load (0.5ms)  SELECT  `users`.* FROM `users` WHERE `users`.`id` = 901 LIMIT 1
> ApplicationController.helpers.print_studycourses(user)
  Enrollment Load (0.5ms)  SELECT `agegroups_studycourses_departments_users`.* FROM `agegroups_studycourses_departments_users` WHERE `agegroups_studycourses_departments_users`.`user_id` = 901
  Studycourse Load (0.3ms)  SELECT  `studycourses`.* FROM `studycourses` WHERE `studycourses`.`id` = 3 LIMIT 1
  Agegroup Load (0.4ms)  SELECT  `agegroups`.* FROM `agegroups` WHERE `agegroups`.`id` = 3 LIMIT 1
  Studycourse Load (0.4ms)  SELECT  `studycourses`.* FROM `studycourses` WHERE `studycourses`.`id` = 5 LIMIT 1
  Agegroup Load (0.4ms)  SELECT  `agegroups`.* FROM `agegroups` WHERE `agegroups`.`id` = 19 LIMIT 1

Here information from three database tables is combined.

5.4.1 createing a database view

In the database console we can build a simple select statement with two joins to get the same information:

mysql> SELECT user_id, concat(, ' ', year) AS name 
FROM agegroups_studycourses_departments_users x 
LEFT JOIN studycourses ON ( 
LEFT JOIN agegroups ON ( 
WHERE user_id=901;
| user_id | name              |
|     901 | MMT Bachelor 2010 |
|     901 | MMT Master 2014   |
2 rows in set (0,01 sec)

We can create a view in the database that contains this information:

mysql> CREATE VIEW degree_programs AS 
SELECT user_id, concat(, ' ', year) AS name 
FROM agegroups_studycourses_departments_users x 
LEFT JOIN studycourses ON ( 
LEFT JOIN agegroups ON (;
Query OK, 0 rows affected (0,06 sec)

This view can now be used like any other table in the database:

mysql> SELECT * from degree_programs WHERE user_id=901 ;
| user_id | name              |
|     901 | MMT Bachelor 2010 |
|     901 | MMT Master 2014   |
2 rows in set (0,00 sec)

5.4.2 model and relationships for the view

In Rails we can define a model for this view:

class DegreeProgram < ActiveRecord::Base
  belongs_to :user

  def to_s

And add a relationship from user:

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_many :degree_programs  

back in the rails console we can now use this new model:

> user = User.find(901)
  User Load (0.5ms)  SELECT  `users`.* FROM `users` WHERE `users`.`id` = 901 LIMIT 1
> user.degree_programs.join(', ')
  DegreeProgram Load (0.6ms)  SELECT `degree_programs`.* FROM `degree_programs` WHERE `degree_programs`.`user_id` = 901
=> "MMT Bachelor 2010, MMT Master 2014"

And finally we can refactor the helper method print_studycourses

  def print_studycourses(student)
    student.degree_programs.join(', ')

This reduces the number of SQL statements to one per collaborator partial:


5.4.3 create view in production

To deploy the view to production, you need to create it with a migration:

class CreateViewDegreeProgram < ActiveRecord::Migration
  def up
    execute <<-SQL
      CREATE VIEW degree_programs AS
      SELECT user_id, concat(, ' ', year) AS name
      FROM agegroups_studycourses_departments_users x
      LEFT JOIN studycourses ON (
      LEFT JOIN agegroups ON (
  def down
    execute 'DROP VIEW degree_programs'

5.4.4 uses and limitations of view

In this case the view might be a first step towards refactoring the database. We just have too many tables in the database that are not really needed.

We can rewrite the rails app step by step to use only the new view, and not the database tables it is supposed to replace. after we have changed all the rails code, we can drop the view, and create a table with the same data instead. Then we can drop the original tables and are finished with the database refactoring.

In other cases you might use a view permanently: If you need both the underlying, more complex data, and the simplified data in the view. Reports with aggregated data, top 10 lists, queries that use complex database expressions, or tables with a reduced set of attributes would be good examples for using a view.

For data that is accessed a lot, but changes very seldom, you can us a materialized view. In a normal view each access to the view triggers the underlying sql requests. In a materialized view the data is copied over to the view once. This needs more memory, but gives faster access.

5.5 final thoughts

If we add a relationship from projects to degree_program (actually: three has_many through: steps to get from projects to collaborators, and from collaborators to users, and from users to degree_programs), we can also include degree_programs in our includes statement when loading the project:

@project = Project.includes(:users, :roles, :assets, :urls, :tags, :degree_programs).friendly.find(params[:id])

This way we end up with only very few sql queries, and a big performance improvement:

final state of the app

ActiveRecord was a big help when writing this app. But it cannot find the best solution for every situation. As a developer you have to keep an eye on your ORM, and check now and again if the SQL queries that the ORM creates make sense and are efficient.

6 See Also